Islay – The Distilleries

Islay is stunningly beautiful, and we both would have fallen in love with it regardless, but the main reason we visited was for the whisky.

There are currently 8 distilleries on the island, although there have been many more ‘lost’ over the years.  Islay whisky is so very strong and very distinctive, all down to the peat fields that you drive through on your way around.  I’m saying all of this as if I tasted any, but don’t actually drink so was purely there as a driver for Husband.  Expect dirty looks if you tell the locals and tourists that you’re a teetotaller.

Our whirlwind tour started with Husband’s favourite – Laphroaig.  He was treated to a two hour experience – a tour of the distillery, followed by an hour in one of their warehouses tasting three special casks.  This was a really fun 2 hours (and introduced us to people we would see again and again from our tour group – Islay truly is a ‘small world’ kind of place).  After tasting the casks, we used a wooden suction tube called a valinch to extract a small bottle’s worth of our favourites (well, Husband chose his two favourites).

During this first tour, I learnt about something which would save Husband’s liver – the driver’s dram.  As I wasn’t drinking, I assumed we’d only have two options for the samples we’d receive – we decline mine, or Husband drinks them all.  Fortunately, the distilleries have tiny bottles that you can pour your samples into and take away with you.  Goodness knows what would have happened if he had to drink double the whisky.

Laphoraig was my favourite tour, and I especially loved the shop and bar area – warm and snug, with free coffee and big comfy sofas to aid recovery.   I could quite happily have spent all afternoon here, but we had more distilleries to visit.

Next up, we went to Ardbeg – we didn’t actually tour this one as we couldn’t quite fit it into our schedule, but stopped here for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe where we ate hearty sandwiches followed by clootie dumplings.

With full tummies, we drove back to Lagavulin for another hour tour followed by three samples (and some driver’s drams).  I found Lagavulin slightly more corporate, although their waiting area was very cute.  There were no photos allowed on the tour which made me roll my eyes a little – Laphroaig positively encouraged it – but it was still enjoyable.

Two tours was probably enough for the day, so we started afresh the following morning with Bruichladdich.

We chose their Warehouse Experience, which was less of a tour and more of a ‘sit in a warehouse and get hammered’.  Again, very enjoyable for a whisky fan as you got to sample some limited edition casks whilst sat amongst the barrels, listening to our guide telling us all about life on the island.  Bruichladdich is noticeably different to the others – they call themselves progressive, and they definitely feel less stuffy, more youthful.  They also make a gin called The Botanist so we’ll need to go back and try that at some point as well.

Our final distillery on this visit was Kilchoman which was different again.  Whilst the first three we visited were right by the sea, Kilchoman is on a farm, more inland and down a long single-track road.  They’re a much smaller scale operation, really family-orientated.  They really felt like a hard-working team – not that the others didn’t seem hard-working, but Kilchoman is the newest distillery so there was a lot more of a buzz in the grounds.  Another added bonus – their small cafe at the back of the shop served amazing cakes which I highly recommend.

Four distilleries in two days didn’t seem like a lot, but we were definitely tired.  Our next trip needs to be longer – we have four other distilleries to cover off, and we possibly even need to pop over to the neighbouring isle of Jura to samples their whisky too.

For a someone who doesn’t drink, I sure have been to a lot of distilleries.

Islay – The Logistics

Once I’d figured out where we were going to stay on Islay for Husband’s surprise birthday trip, I then had to figure out how to get there.

The first leg of the journey was to Glasgow which was the easy part.  From there, there are a few options but realistically for our schedule, we could either fly with Logan Air or drive to Kennacraig to get the Calmac ferry.  There are pros and cons for both modes of transport but considering my goal was to get to Islay as quickly as possible, flying ended up being the best choice.

Unfortunately, flying made the beginning and end of our trip quite stressful.  We almost missed our first flight from Heathrow as there was an accident on the M3 which was so frustrating as we only live 30 minutes away from Terminal 5.  Not only that, whilst I thought I had given us enough time to switch planes on the way back from Islay at Glasgow airport, our Logan Air flight ended up leaving Islay half an hour late so we had to run to our gate.  And I hate being that person who runs through airports.

Not only that, but Husband was sad that our luggage wasn’t big enough to pack all the whisky he wanted.  Next time, we’ll have to drive the 13 hours from our house so he can fill the whole car with bottles of whisky.

Ignoring the stress, flying into Islay is very special.  It takes 40 minutes from Glasgow on a tiny 34 seat turboprop plane (which was only moderately terrifying).  For most of our journey, the cloud level stopped us from seeing anything below but all of a sudden, the iconic Laphroaig appeared out of the right side of the plane.  I confess – I squealed when I saw it.

The airport itself is as small as you’d expect – two check-in counters, a bijou but comfortable lounge, a cafe serving locals as well as visitors.  I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a dog at the front door, but I don’t think he’s there all the time.

There’s a few transport options on the island – a regular bus service, a few taxi companies, but I decided on hiring a car from Islay Car Hire at the airport which was incredibly easy.  I booked a medium sized car as I knew the route to our Airbnb was a little off-road and I didn’t want to risk a small car.  Within about five minutes of getting off the plane, I was adjusting the mirrors in a Vauxhall Astra who I named Sassy.  The car hire worked for us mainly because I don’t drink, so was happy to ferry a tipsy Husband from distillery to distillery.

So other than drive from distillery to distillery (which I’ll be covering in a future post), what else did we do?  Not much to be honest.  With only two full days on the island, Husband wanted to maximise his whisky tasting time but we did manage to see a few non-whisky related places.

On our first night, we went up to Bowmore for a little wander around and some pizza at Peatzeria (good pun).  It was surprisingly busy for a Monday night and we ended up getting one of the last tables which I was relieved about as it would have been a shame to miss out on tasty pizza.  Bowmore has a lot of lovely little shops which were all closed as we were there late, but it’s definitely somewhere to get cute souvenirs as well as more every-day items.

The second night, we were too tired to go out so we ended up in the Port Ellen Co-op and cobbling something together to cook back at home.  I won’t tell you what we ended up with as it’s so pathetic (in our defence, the Co-op isn’t that big).  We did want to try the Sea Salt Bistro but instead tried their sister restaurant Yan’s Kitchen for lunch on our last day where I had an amazing burger.

My two favourite things about Islay:

  • The empty landscape.  There are a few “main” roads across the island but you can drive for miles and see nothing but fields.  Following the coast down to Port Charlotte, you’re right next to the sea.  When you’re not on a main road, you’re on a single track lane going through farmland.  There’s just nothing and I adore it.
  • The people.  I don’t want to being a patronising mainlander who just thinks everyone is sooo cute and quaint but every single person we came across was incredible friendly.  People wave at you as you’re driving along – other drivers and pedestrians – and I very quickly got used to waving back.  It felt really jarring to be back at home where people aren’t so nice.

What a phenomenal island.

Islay – Where We Stayed

For the past year, I have been planning a surprise trip for Husband’s big birthday (I won’t reveal the number – let’s pretend it was 30).  He was not involved in any of the planning and I managed to keep the secret all the way up until our final leg of the trip, so honestly, I am feeling pretty smug about what I managed to pull off.

On our very first trip to Edinburgh 4 years ago, Husband discovered Islay whisky, and became quickly fascinated by all the different elements that go into making the iconic whisky.  Since then, he’s been working his way through all the different brands that make this small island their home. so there really was only one place to take him.

And it certainly helps that Islay is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited.

More about the island in the next few posts, but this first one is about the place we stayed.  I have a reputation amongst friends and family for obsessively seeking out unusual places to stay (exhibit Aexhibit B, exhibit C to name a few) so of course I spent weeks – months – finding the most perfect property.  And I found a gem (here comes that smug feeling again).

This small but ever so beautiful turf roofed lodge is called Tigh Na Uiseag (which I think means house of the lark) and I found it on Airbnb.  I haven’t ever used Airbnb before so was a little nervous of booking, but I had no reason to be – Richard the host was a delight, so generous and helpful.  We couldn’t have wished for a better first Airbnb experience.

There are many places to chose from on Islay from B&Bs, to self-catering, to hotels, but there were a couple of things that helped me choose Tigh Na Uiseag – the overwhelmingly positive reviews, the Scandinavian-inspired decor (an Arne Jacobson chair!) and the view.  My god, what a view.And if you zoom in at the centre…

Husband’s favourite distillery, Laphroaig.  This post could just be a million photos of the view as we spent most of the time in the house just looking out the window, but then you’d miss out on the beautiful interior.

I didn’t photograph it, but the bathroom was amazing as well – Molton Brown toiletries, White Company bathrobes, and the most phenomenal shower I have ever used in my life.

There were so many thoughtful touches which made our stay even more wonderful – a book of short stories on the bedside tables, home-baked bread, eggs and bacon in the fridge,  and a cute pot of delicious marmalade which we ate whilst watching the ferry arrive in the morning.

Sadly, our stay was too short – a drawback of working in Higher Education with an August birthday is that annual leave is a little difficult – but we will definitely be returning for a longer stay.  As you’ll see from my next few posts, we still have so many distilleries left to visit…

Edinburgh Trip – single malts and stacked rocks

Arthur's SeatIt seems astonishing that just a 15 minute walk from our Edinburgh city hotel is a flipping volcano.  OK, so it’s extinct but it’s also extraordinarily beautiful and it would have been crazy not to visit.  We wanted to make the most of the beautiful weather we’d woken to, so quickly grabbed a coffee and headed straight over to Holyrood Park.

In hindsight, it was perhaps a little too hot to be clambering about on the hill, and despite wearing light clothes, we were soon sweating buckets.  We got about halfway, and I begged Husband to not go any further, so we joked that we’d managed Arthur’s Chair Leg.  Still, we had a lovely (sweaty) walk, and a gentle stroll back down into the city.  Edinburgh residents are so lucky to have this.

We walked along the slightly manic Royal Mile over to the castle and paid the (IMO) extortionate entry fee.  Knowing how much we spent to get in, I really didn’t enjoy the castle which was disappointing.  The views over the city were amazing, but we got a similarly amazing view in Gozo from the Victoria Citadella and that was free.  Perhaps not a fair comparison, but it’s what came to mind.  We were there for the one o’clock gun so watched that go off (meh) and then went over to the Crown Jewels exhibit.  I will admit to not reading any of the displays, so when we got to the end, I turned to Husband and said “so, what’s this about?”  It just felt so… boring.  I probably missed a lot of other history, but I just wasn’t feeling it that day.

We spent about an hour in the castle, and walked out underneath the big stadium seating that they were setting up for Tom Jones.  Literally underneath it, as the contractors were fitting the seats to the structure.  We didn’t really have a plan at this point, but it seems as though whisky was calling Husband’s name and we found ourselves crossing the threshold of the Scotch Whisky Experience.  I had been forewarned by Trip Advisor reviewers that it was cheesy and the start of it was super mega cheesy.  Our tour guide, a lovely Swedish man called Marcus, loaded us into our barrels (yes, barrels) and we went on ” swirling, bubbling barrel ride through a replica distillery as you become part of the whisky making process”.  OK then.  It did feel a bit like a really inappropriate kids ride!

Marcus collected us again at the end and we had a short video and ‘lecture’ about the different areas of scotch whisky, which was actually interesting.  I knew a little bit about it – a couple of years ago, Husband, Tim, Jaina, and I were treated to a tour at the Bladnoch distillery, which was a real treat as we weren’t charged and they gave us a lot to sample at the end.  But the Scotch Whisky tour gave us a bit more context and detail about the other regions.

Sidenote – I’ve just gone to the Bladnoch website to find that they’ve gone into liquidation.  I’m genuinely sad about this as they were lovely people who were remarkably welcoming to us that day.  I hope they can find a buyer!

After the video, we smelt each region’s whisky on a scratch card (sounds odd, but effective) and then decided which region we’d like to taste.  I decided on Speyside, and Husband chose Islay.  As a non-drinker, both tasted disgusting to me, but Husband enjoyed them very much.  We drank them in a room containing the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whisky, which was impressively large, and then were taken out to the bar.

Now please bear in mind that I just said I don’t drink.  So what better for someone like me than four more samples of whisky.

WhiskyWe got to taste our samples in the bar, which has wonderful views over the Edinburgh rooftops, and as I’m sure you can imagine, Husband got quite tipsy.  We hadn’t eaten anything since our breakfast croissant, and the whisky went straight to his head.  He made me drink one of them after I watered it down but it’s not for me.  We got to keep one of those glasses, which Husband now drinks his whisky out of at home, and I am very proud of us for not accidentally smashing them on the way back.  Hilariously, the tour level we bought gave us membership of the Scotch Whisky Appreciation Society, so I’ll be sure to put that on my CV.

After a quick stop at the shop to buy some Port Charlotte Islay Whisky, I manoeuvred him back to the hotel and we both had a little nap.  Shamefully, we could only managed the short walk to Nandos for dinner but I was too tired and he was too drunk to manage anywhere further away.  It was oddly quiet with only a couple of people in the restaurant.  I guess  chicken isn’t that popular in Scotland.